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Artman departing 'same old BIA'

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Carl Artman spent more time waiting to become the head of the BIA than he did in office. After a little more than a year as assistant secretary for Indian affairs, Artman announced that he will leave his post May 23. He gave no particular reason for his departure in his April 28 resignation letter, but many speculate that frustration with the bureaucracy of the BIA contributed to his decision. Although many tribal leaders described his brief tenure as optimistic and productive, it will end amid controversy and with several issues still unresolved.

To his credit, Artman was the primary architect of the Interior Department's Indian Modernization Initiative. Aside from its slightly odd name, which could be misconstrued as further proof that the federal government continues its assimilationist policies, the effort to enhance cooperation and partnership between tribes and Interior was praiseworthy. However, Artman was criticized by some tribal leaders who felt the BIA did not engage in sufficient dialogue before deciding on plans to reorganize the bureau. The strained relations were characterized by one Plains chairman, who compared the reorganization to ''rearranging the furniture on the Titanic.'' Artman remained confident that modernization would benefit government relations, telling us last fall, ''We're not the same old BIA; we should be changing how we communicate with tribes.''

Consultation has been a tough road for Artman. With regard to the Cherokee freedmen controversy, he stepped in last year to affirm the citizenship rights of the freedmen but was recently asked by members of Congress to clarify the BIA's position. The congressional group, led by U.S. Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., urged more oversight on the part of the BIA. Pressure to resolve the issue continues as the Congressional Black Caucus threatened to block reauthorization of the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act.

Artman inherited a massive backlog of land-into-trust applications that had accumulated while the BIA went without permanent leadership for two years. While he effectively addressed numerous cases, his method for dealing with trust applications caused an uproar throughout Indian country that will heartily greet the next administration.

At the beginning of his term, Artman mentioned a need for Interior to take a closer look at the issue of off-reservation gaming. It indeed accomplished that goal with a sweeping measure that eliminated the gaming hopes for several tribes.

On Jan. 3, Artman issued a memo to the BIA's regional directors establishing that all future applications would be reviewed in light of what he described as a ''commutable distance'' standard. Essentially, the farther tribal members have to commute from their reservation to jobs at the proposed location, the more likely the application would be denied. The next day, Interior rejected the applications of 22 of 30 tribes seeking to put off-reservation land in trust, even for non-gaming purposes. Under fire, Artman later insisted that the guidance was not a policy change, but an ''internal management tool.'' During his testimony at a House of Representatives oversight hearing, he failed to specify whether he had consulted with any tribes on this new guidance.

The flawed policy exemplifies the paternalism tribal leaders say still harms Indian self-determination. The guidance was highly successful - as a desk-clearing measure. As a significant new policy issued without consultation or a comment period, it has implications for the economic development strategies of many tribes, hitting those located in remote, rural areas the hardest. Indian people have engaged in trade and commerce outside of their territories and communities for generations. The legacy is regrettable - for tribes victimized by this poor decision, and for Artman, who promised enhanced communication with tribes.